College Board members have reacted angrily to a major set of proposals – devised by an internal working group – that could see governance in Trinity drastically remoulded, with the possibility of an end to elected membership and the introduction of new criteria for serving on Board.
Board last week rejected a slew of proposed changes – drawn up in the aftermath of government proposals many feared would imperil Trinity’s autonomy – suggested by a 12-person Board Review Working Group featuring Provost Patrick Prendergast.
The proposals, contained in a document obtained by The University Times, suggest the appointment of more external members, a changed process for selecting internal members for the body, and the creation of a new “competency framework” to dictate who should serve on Board.
The document also suggests the establishment of a Nominations Committee, which would nominate external members as well as having an involvement in the process by which internal members are appointed to Board – a move that could signal the end of Board’s current electoral processes set out in the statutes.
And it recommends reducing the number of meetings – which currently take place monthly – to five or six a year, with the creation of a new Principal Committee of Board in order to deal with short-term, operational problems.
The working group says these changes would improve the efficiency of Board, as well as freeing it up to tackle long-term, strategic issues.
But many members say the proposals would hamstring the effectiveness of the body and rob it of its legislative significance, as well as ceding ground when it comes to the autonomy of Ireland’s universities.
Analysis of the 13-page document – as well as conversations with several Board members, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity – highlights the significance of the proposals, as well as the serious concerns of some amid a months-long debate over the future of Trinity’s foremost decision-making body.
Last autumn, several Board members hit out at a set of government proposals that appeared to jeopardise the College’s ability to govern itself without state interference.
The legislative reforms left open the possibility of a slimmed-down Board – with 15 members instead of its current 27 – and more external members.
The proposed reforms came a year after Board had established its own working group to carry out a wide-ranging evaluation of its functioning, and recommend changes to improve governance in the College.
Now, some members say College is playing into the hands of the government by accepting that more external members equates to better decision-making. They say a smaller Board will compromise the body’s representative quality.
Prof Eunan O’Halpin, the Bank of Ireland Professor of Contemporary Irish History and a member of Board, wrote in an email of “several objections” he has to the proposed changes – including “the assumption that an increase in, or perhaps a preponderance, of external Board members leads to better governance in any third/fourth level education institution”.
The problem with the proposals, O’Halpin said, is that “they assume that outside members will be active and high-minded contributors to business, and that they will give expertise gratis and unconditionally”.
Another member of Board, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said their impression was that College is attempting to make the changes in order to placate the government.
They said the role of the Nominating Committee would make Board less democratic, and criticised Trinity for attempting to implement the changes while the College is closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Sarah Alyn-Stacey, a Fellow and a member of the College Board, wrote in an email: “As it is currently constituted, Board permits representation of a broad cross-section of the College: Support staff, Administrative staff, students and academics (Fellows and non-Fellows) all have an opportunity to speak through their elected representatives.”
“It is difficult”, she added, “to see the merits of replacing the current model with a much smaller one which would see the College governed by a majority of people external to the College: what competencies would the Board benefit from that it does not have already by being so inclusive of the College community?”.
The document puts forward two options for appointing, or electing, internal members. Under one, the Nominations Committee would nominate internal members in the same way as external members.
In another scenario, which the document calls a “hybrid” approach, Nominations Committee would assess potential candidates to make sure they meet the competency framework before an electoral process.
Currently, most members of Board are elected by members of staff whose name appears on the Register, as per the statutes of the College, with four student members and several ex officio members including the provost and vice-provost.
A member of Board speaking on the condition of anonymity said the changes would allow Trinity to “pick and choose” its members, rather than electing them.
O’Halpin said the changes “assume that internally elected staff are essentially grievance peddlers incapable of disinterested strategic thinking and really no better than shop stewards with gowns”.
He added that university boards “are quite unlike commercial boards and should not be confused with them in terms of purpose, ethos or performance”.
Speaking to The University Times, Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) President Laura Beston – a member of the working group – said she will push to retain the four student positions on Board, even if its size is reduced.
“Student representation is very important regardless of the size of the Board”, she said, adding: “We need to have accurate representation of students at that committee. And if you don’t have that many people representing that many areas, you can’t do it properly.”
Currently, TCDSU’s president, education officer and welfare officer sit on Board, as well as the president of the Graduate Students’ Union.
Beston said: “I see myself as someone who’s there to defend student representation.”
In an email statement to The University Times, a College spokesperson wrote: “The Board of Trinity College Dublin set up a Board Review Working Group following a periodic self-evaluation exercise by the Board.”
“The terms of reference and membership of the Board Review Working Group have been approved by the Board and its work includes reviewing the structures and work of the Board and its committees in the wider context of Trinity governance”, they said.
The spokesperson said changes proposed by the working group “may require changes to Trinity’s statutes and legislation which would require further consultation within Trinity and with the Government”.
They said Trinity “is aware” of the government proposals for higher education institutes, but said the group’s “primary focus is in considering the governance structures which are in Trinity’s best interests in advancing its mission and in proposing any changes to the Trinity Board”.